Saturday, October 12, 2019

New Valley Flyer Amtrak service brings opportunity to Springfield sports and entertainment

By Zachary Baru

Passenger rail is once again thriving in the Pioneer Valley thanks to Amtrak and the State of Massachusetts' new Valley Flyer service.  The new service, which began in August 2019, brings an excellent opportunity to sports and entertainment promoters in Springfield, Mass., as fans can now come to events by multiple trains a day from Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke, Mass.

The Need for More Passenger Rail Service in the Pioneer Valley

In 2014, for the first time since 1966, passenger train service was restored through Holyoke thanks to local leaders such as Mayor Alex Morse, Representative Aaron Vega, Senator Eric Lesser and Congressman Richard Neal.  The train was Amtrak’s Vermonter, with one train daily in each direction, connecting St. Albans, Vermont and Washington, D.C.

Amtrak's Vermonter at Union Station in Springfield.
Photo by Zachary Baru.
The response to the new service was immediately positive.  The State of Massachusetts quickly discovered there was a demand for more rail service between Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and the other connecting cities on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.  In 2019, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved funding for a new Amtrak state-supported service stopping in Holyoke, this time called the Valley Flyer.  The Valley Flyer began service in August 2019 and will run on a two-year trial, with its future depending on ridership.

Amtrak’s Valley Flyer, Vermonter and service to New York

The Valley Flyer will have two trains daily in each direction, serving Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke, as well as Springfield, Hartford and New Haven.  The new Valley Flyer service combined with the once-daily Vermonter is a major economic opportunity for residents and businesses in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke.  Residents will now have more access to trains into New Haven, but also opportunities to ride the train into New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

For riders looking to directly travel to New York or points south, both the Vermonter and Northeast Regional connects Western Massachusetts to New York without the need to change trains.  The Northeast Regional only goes as far north as Springfield, but offers one daily train in each direction, with two on the weekends.  For riders looking for additional trains to get to and from New York or south from Springfield, they can take multiple offerings of the Valley Flyer or Amtrak Hartford Line to New Haven and have a cross-platform transfer to Amtrak’s Northeast Regional which continues onto New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.  Each of these trains have multiple offerings of departures allowing passengers to transfer in New Haven to Metro-North with hourly service into Grand Central Terminal in New York.

Opportunity for Sports and Entertainment Events in Springfield

With Downtown Springfield now connected by rail to major cities in the Pioneer Valley such as Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield, promoters of sports and entertainment events can attract a whole new market of fans who prefer to stay off the roads to access their destination.  One example of this is Major League Soccer, which is currently working on the combination of moving teams and adding teams in downtown areas to reach the demographic of fans who prefer public transit.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, "Springfield Union Station".
The leading demographic MLS is trying to reach are millenials, which MLS has specifically mentioned they are trying to attract by this latest approach to locating teams.  Just last week, the Chicago Fire of MLS announced the move out of their soccer-specific stadium in the suburb of Bridgeview to Soldier Field in Downtown Chicago.  The Fire specifically mentioned their move into this National Football League stadium was intended to appease the desires of millennial fans who prefer a downtown setting for public transit options.  Many other MLS teams have seen success in recent years in urban stadiums such as Seattle, Portland, LAFC and New York FC for this very same reason of attracting a large group of fans using public transit.

Promoters in Springfield can now focus on this in their marketing as more public transportation offerings for the city are added.  The new Valley Flyer service is just one example of more public transit for Springfield, but the future looks bright with the opening of the renovated Union Station in 2017 and the new "CTrail Hartford Line" commuter train service that was added in 2018.

The Future

For years, promoters in Springfield relied on I-91 funneling fans into the city from all four directions, but now with greater transit options, promoters in Springfield have an opportunity to join the trend of attracting fans who prefer not to rely on the highway.  The Valley Flyer is just in its infancy but it is example of our region's push for better connectivity, a challenge that has plagued other regions for decades, and one the Pioneer Valley would like to make itself known for solving.

Springfield has a big opportunity: location.  It is the economic center of Western Massachusetts, but also approximately 90 miles from Boston and Albany, 60 miles from Vermont and just 2.5 hours from the largest media market in the U.S., New York City.  That is as central as you can get for a lot of cities, but Springfield has long been an transportation hub that was overlooked for many decades.  With the help of local leaders, Springfield is once again the transit hub it once was.  The question is, will promoters of area events take advantage of this opportunity to tap into a demographic of people who are ready and willing to attend events, but no longer want to rely on congested highways?  Time will tell, but whatever the answer may be, Springfield is ready.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Same league, different name for Pioneers

By Zachary Baru

A new season for the Western Mass. Pioneers is here, and while the soccer will still be the same as the unofficial fourth-tier of American soccer, the Premier Development League is no more. 

While the PDL name has changed, the Pioneers' league is technically still the same, as the PDL has changed their name to USL League 2.  The United Soccer League went through a series of restructuring this season, which was initially announced back in 2017, but has just come into full fruition.

The first of many changes from the USL for the 2019 season was the organization dropping the "s" from their name, changing from the United Soccer Leagues to the United Soccer League.  Secondly, the USL changed their highest level league from the self-named United Soccer League to USL Championship.  The new league name did not change the level of play, as USL Championship is still  recognized as a second tier league by the U.S. Soccer Federation, just as the formerly-named USL was.

The next change for the USL organization was the addition of a new league for the 2019 season.  This league is called USL League One, recognized as a third tier league by U.S. Soccer.  That makes the Pioneers' new league, USL League Two, commonly recognized as a fourth tier league in North America, however U.S. Soccer does not officially recognize the league as fourth tier since U.S. Soccer does not include non-professional leagues in their hierarchy.

When it comes to USL League Two, however, make no mistake about it, this is an extremely competitive and well-run organization.  Besides the name change, USL League Two is comprised of 72 franchises across 4 divisions in North America, and is as strong as the league has ever been.  The league is arguably even stronger now after the USL's restructuring of their leagues, making way for the Pioneers' new league to represent a true progression of talent across of the leagues of the USL.

We are fortunate to have an extremely high level of soccer in our own backyard.  Lusitano Stadium, home of the Pioneers and now the New England Mutiny, is a special venue that has been nationally recognized for its intimacy and soccer-specific design.  No matter where you decide to sit or stand, you can be right on top of the action with perfect sight lines.  For Western Mass. soccer fans, having a strong league like USL League Two, a quality franchise like the Pioneers, and the unique venue of Lusitano Stadium so close to home is a true gift, and one no soccer fan should live without.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, March 29, 2019

NCAA Tournament bringing national television exposure on ESPN2

By Zachary Baru

UMass Hockey has made it to the national stage, not just by gaining another appearance in the NCAA Hockey Tournament, but by gaining airtime today nationally on ESPN2.

Today's game against Harvard will be one of many games this season for UMass Hockey on television, but it will be by far their largest audience, even with a tough time slot.  One game earlier this season was broadcast on Fox College Sports, as was another on TSN 2 in Canada.  Regionally, many games have been aired live on NESN and NBC Sports Boston.

Today's ESPN2 appearance is a unique opportunity to give the entire country exposure to the UMass Hockey program, which is having a successful and historic season.  The 2018-19 season marked the first time in program history that UMass Hockey reached a #1 national ranking, and finished the season ranked #4 nationally in the USCHO.com poll.  The Minutemen will look to ride their momentum on a successful season to show a nationwide audience the level the program has reached, as most of the country has not had much exposure to the UMass Hockey team.

With the exception of ESPN+, a streaming subscription service, hockey in general is rare on ESPN.  The NCAA Hockey Tournament, however, has given ESPN exclusive rights in the U.S. to broadcast every game.  ESPN2 will be airing most of the tournament, including the championship game, with some games on ESPNU and two games on ESPN's free streaming service, ESPN3.

UMass will face Harvard today at 3 p.m. in the first round at the 9,852-seat SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire.  SNHU Arena is home to the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL.

For UMass, this will be a rare chance to show the entire country how much their program has grown, going from an non-ranked team last season to a #1 ranking in the nation this year.  After a year in which the men's basketball team received little national television exposure, tonight will be an opportunity for the UMass brand to be seen in front of a massive nationwide audience.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Red Sox Weekend coming to Springfield

By Zachary Baru

Since 2015, Boston Red Sox Winter Weekend has been held at Foxwoods Resort and Casino, but come 2020 the event will be a whole lot closer - right here in Springfield.

MGM will become the new "official and exclusive resort casino of the Boston Red Sox", replacing the previous 5-year deal with Foxwoods.  Not only will Winter Weekend be coming to MGM Springfield, but the MGM logo will appear on the "Green Monster" in Fenway Park.

Winter Weekend was formerly held at the 4,000-seat Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut since 2015.  There has not been an announcement yet as to which venue Winter Weekend will be held at MGM Springfield, but the resort casino has many options.

MGM Springfield does have convention space at the resort, but a more viable option might be off the resort at the 2,600-seat Symphony Hall, which MGM Springfield now manages.  MGM Springfield also manages the MassMutual Center across Main Street, but between the 8,000-seat arena (for concert seating) and the Exhibition Hall, Symphony Hall might be the better option for the town hall-style event.

It has been a big year for MGM Springfield, after announcing last month that they will be presenting Aerosmith at the MassMutual Center for 4 shows in August 2019 during the band's Deuces Are Wild - East Coast Run.  MGM Resorts International has kept up their promise of more entertainment to the city, as a very successful 2019 continues for MGM Springfield.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Renovations underway at Mackenzie Stadium

By Zachary Baru

There shouldn't be many more disputes about the name of Mackenzie Stadium in Holyoke, especially now that an enormous sign and logo has been placed on top of a new large scoreboard in left field.

Mackenzie Stadium, often referred to as Mackenzie Field, is much more than a field.  Especially now, that the venue and it's 600-seat grandstand has improvements such as the new scoreboard and a brand new infield.

The City of Holyoke has made many improvements over the years, including the fence and a new field last year (see "Renovations for Mackenzie Stadium key for Blue Sox, City of Holyoke, Western Mass. Sports Biz, March 2017.)  Come next season, Holyoke High and Valley Blue Sox fans will be able to enjoy a refreshed, modern look to the stadium.  The new scoreboard is purple for the colors of the Holyoke High School Purple Knights, and not only contains a large sign for the stadium, but it also has additional space for advertisements.

Mackenzie Stadium opened in 1933 and was home to the Holyoke Millers, a member of the "AA" Eastern League from 1977 through 1982.  In 2004, baseball once again returned to the Paper City, when the New England Collegiate Baseball League brought the Holyoke Giants to town.  

The franchise moved to Lynn, Massachusetts in 2007, making way for what was then called the Holyoke Blue Sox to come to the city in 2008.  The Holyoke Blue Sox changed their name to the Valley Blue Sox in 2014.

With a new infield and new large scoreboard in left field, Mackenzie Stadium continues to provide one of the best stadium experiences for baseball in Western Massachusetts.  It may not have the capacity of the newest minor league stadiums, but with its history, and now its improvements, Mackenzie Stadium is a special place to be able to watch baseball 85 years after it first opened. 

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes for SportsBusinessBoston.com.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

As MGM Springfield’s opening nears, Thunderbirds look to see attendance hike

By Zachary Baru

With the opening of MGM Springfield less than two months away, many Springfield businesses are eagerly awaiting the positive effects from the $950 million resort casino.  The Springfield Thunderbirds are one of these such businesses, and are in prime position to have yet another successful season from the expected attendance increase.

As the Thurnderds’ home sits across the street from the casino’s main entrance, any home game will most likely see a fair amount of casino guests, either making their way to or from the casino.

MGM Springfield has been a good supporter of the Thunderbirds ever since the announcement of their new Springfield resort, and has always said the casino will help boost local entertainment at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall and City Stage.

This appears to be nothing short of accurate, as the Thunderbirds will be a very good addition to a casino that already seems to offer many entertainment options.  One example of this will be the Thunderbirds hosting the 2019 American Hockey League All-Star game, which comes at a perfect time for Springfield, within 6 months of the casino’s grand opening.

Sports and entertainment has always meshed well with casinos, and Springfield looks to be no different.  Both parties here seem to be in a key position to benefit from each other, helping to enhance the city’s entertainment offering.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Just like the Red Sox "painted the town red" in 2003, the Thunderbirds do the same in 2018

By Zachary Baru

If there is one thing you can say about what the Springfield Thunderbirds have done since they were established in the summer of 2016, it's a sense of presence seen throughout the city. 

You can see it everywhere.  Their logo is everywhere.  Advertisements and banners throughout the city proudly show that this is Thunderbirds country, a strategy that teams have used for decades, and now brilliantly being used in our own backyard.

In 2003, the then-new Boston Red Sox ownership implemented a strategic marketing campaign to "paint the town red".  And paint the town red they did.  Within a matter of months, a much more streamlined and modern campaign of "Red Sox red" merchandise was available and being worn by many fans throughout the region.  Something somewhat similar is brewing here in Springfield.   

When the Thunderbirds came into town, there was a big need.  And that was support.  There was never a question of whether Western Massachusetts liked hockey, but there was a question of whether the region could support it. 

From the Boston Red Sox 2003 marketing campaign.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Thunderbirds' logo or banner can be seen everywhere.  Drive by Forrest Park, by MGM Springfield, or simply look at the car in front of you, it just might have a Thunderbirds bumper sticker, one of many that were distributed to fans since 2016. 

It is this excellent combination of traditional and grass-roots marketing that makes the Thunderbirds successful, and looks to lead to a bright future for the franchise.

The team has had commercials, both on television and radio, and even used billboards, but the marketing that can be seen everyday are the many logos that residents throughout the city see on a daily basis.  And regardless of whether you're a hockey fan or not, regardless of whether you are planning on seeing a game or not, you still are reminded of the Thunderbirds - a very important piece to the puzzle for any business.

It is this kind of marketing, in addition to an increased social media presence from three years ago, that will help carry the Thunderbirds into the future.  Just like the Red Sox "painted the town red" in 2003, the Thunderbirds are making their presence felt throughout the City of Springfield.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes for SportsBusinessBoston.com.